Shiur #22: A Wedding and Two Funerals Vayikra Rabba 20:3-4

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Section three of parasha 20 is essentially a story introduced through a petichta form:


R. Abba ben Kahana opened his discourse by citing:

"I said of laughter: It is mingled" (Kohelet 2:2).


The petichta verse is from Kohelet 2:2 – "Le-sechok amarti meholal." The phrase "amarti meholal" recalls the words "amarti le-hollelim" in the petichta verse of the previous section. The exact meaning of the word meholal is unclear. JPS translates it as “mad,” rendering the entire verse: “Of revelry I said: It is mad,” and the Da'at Mikra offers a similar interpretation. However, the Soncino translation of the midrash cited above renders the verse, based on Rashi's interpretation, as, “I said of laughter: It is mingled.” I presume that this reading understands the word meholal as coming from the root mahal, which can mean “to dilute” (see Yeshayahu 1:22). This is the reading adopted by the midrash, as is clear from the next line:


If the laughter is mixed, of what benefit is the rejoicing?


This line is in fact a translation and interpretation of the entire Kohelet verse into Aramaic. Let us go back and examine this verse in its entirety. In Hebrew it reads: "Le-sechok amarti meholal, u-le-simcha ma zo osa."  JPS translates this as “Of revelry I said: It is mad; of merriment: What good is that?” In this reading, the halves of the verse are exactly parallel to each other. Each half delivers more or less the same message - rejoicing is a pointless endeavor. The midrash on the other hand, in keeping with its commitment to the principle of omnisignificance, reads the parts of the verse not as two independent, although redundant units, but as two parts of a single “If… then…” statement. If one’s laughter is somehow diluted by sorrow, then any happiness that one might have is negated. This is a similar, but somewhat different statement. It does not mean that laughter and rejoicing are worthless in and of themselves, but that in this world, pure happiness is rare indeed. Our happiness is always tinged with sadness and tragedy. It is this “mixed” happiness that that midrash rejects.


The remainder of this section presents a story that illustrates this notion of sadness mixed with happiness. It also picks up on the theme of happiness suddenly being transformed into mourning, which was developed in the previous section:


A story is told of one of the dignitaries of Kabul[*]

who gave his son away in marriage.

On the fourth day he invited guests to his house.

When they had eaten and drunk and made their hearts merry,

he said to his son:

"Go up and bring us a barrel from the upper chamber."

When he went up, a serpent bit him and he died.

He [the father] waited for him to come down,

and as he did not come down, he said:

"I will go up and see what is the matter with my son."

He went up and found that he had been bitten by a serpent

and was dead, lying among the barrels.

He waited until the guests had finished their meal and said to them:

"My masters! Not to bless my son with the bridegroom's blessing have you come, but pronounce over him rather the mourner's blessing!

Have you not come to bring my son under the bridal canopy?

Come, carry him to his grave!"

R. Zakkai of Kabul concluded [the funeral oration] for him:

"I said of laughter: It is mingled."


This story is carefully constructed. It consists of three parts. In each section, happiness is turned into mourning, as the death of the son is revealed to yet another group of individuals. In the first section, the joy of the man and his guests gradually develops. First the man marries off his son; then he invites guests to celebrate.  A peak of happiness is reached as the wedding feast is consumed.  Finally, the father sends the son up to the attic to bring down yet another barrel of wine from the attic, in an effort to raise his guest spirits still higher. But then the son is bitten by a snake and dies, rendering all of the previous celebration meaningless.


In the second part, this process of reversal is repeated. The reader now knows that the son is dead, but none of the characters in the story are aware of this. This section follows the father as he learns of his son's death.  The narrator builds up the suspense in classic Hitchcockian style. The reader watches and waits, knowing the inevitable conclusion, but not knowing when it will come. This scene could easily have been condensed into a single line; instead, we follow the father as he waits for his son to return. Then, as the suspicion enters his mind that something may be amiss, the father resolves to go up to the attic and see if his son is alright. The phrase used in the midrash, "ma tivo shel beni," “what is the matter with my son,” recalls the phrase earlier in the story: "vehetivu et libam," “ he made their hearts merry.” This time, however, the reader knows that his son’s state is not tov - good. Finally, we follow the father as he ascends to the attic and discovers his son’s dead body. The story uses the exact same words to describe what the father sees as it did to describe the son’s death the first time around - “a serpent bit him and he died.” However, the narrator adds one dramatic detail - that the son lay spread across the barrels. This makes the scene more vivid and helps the reader identify with the father’s shock and horror.


In the final section, the father comes back down to his guests. He does not share the news, but rather he waits until the meal is done. The father’s silence is most curious. This time, the reader does not know what is going on in the father’s head nor what is about to happen. Finally, as the meal concludes, the father speaks. He tells the assembled crowd that things were not as they seemed; they had thought that they were participating in a wedding feast and were about make the birkat chatanim, the sheva berakhot in honor of the bride and groom. In fact, they were eating a meal of consolation and were about to make the birkat aveilim, the blessing made before the mourner.


The transformation of the wedding banquet into a mourner’s meal is emblematic of the way in which joy becomes mixed with, and ultimately transformed into, suffering. This continues the pessimistic outlook of the previous section.


This story also picks up on the universal theme of the complex interrelationship between love and death, eros and thanatos. It is as if the day of marriage and the day of death are two sides of the same coin, with parallel liturgies and rituals. It does not take much to transform one into the other.


Despite the fact that this section opened with a standard petichta formula, it does not end with the parasha verse, but rather with a repetition of the petichta verse. This would seem to be an “imperfect” petichta, which does not follow through on the conventions of the petichta form. However, it is also possible that this section is only the first part of a “complex” petichta of the sort we saw in parasha one. As we proceed with out analysis of the next section, we will weigh the possibility that sections three and four actually constitute a single petichta with two petichta verses.


Vayikra Rabba 20:4


This petichta once again picks up the theme of suffering of the righteous and the ease with which glory can turn into tragedy. The petichta verse comes from end of the book of Iyov and is a part of God’s famous speech to Iyov from out the whirlwind, in which God challenges Iyov's understanding and mastery of the natural world. The full text of the passage (39:27-30) reads as follows in the JPS translation:


Does the eagle soar at your command,

Building his nest high,

Dwelling in the rock,

Lodging upon the fastness of a jutting rock?

From there he spies out his food,

From afar his eyes see it.

His young gulp blood

Where the slain are, there he is.


The midrash interprets this verse as referring not to an actual bird, but to God and Aaron:


R. Judan the Galilean opened his discourse as follows:

"Does the eagle soar at your command,

Building his nest on high (Iyov 39:27)?"

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Aaron:

"At your bidding I caused My Presence to rest upon the ark,

and at your bidding I caused My Presence to depart from the ark."


In this reading, the eagle is a term for God or the divine presence, recalling the verse in Devarim 32:4, “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young…”  Aaron can command the divine presence to rise up or come down at will. It is not entirely clear what this is referring to, but it seems to me that Aaron's very presence in the Mishkan causes the Divine presence to descend between the keruvim atop the aron ha-berit, the Ark of the Covenant.


The midrash continues on the theme of the divine presence in the Temple:


"Dwelling... on the rock" (ibid.).

"Rock" applies to the first Temple, [where God abode] many nights.

"Lodging (yitlonan)" (ibid.),

for one night's rest (linah), in the second Temple,

"Upon the fastness of a jutting rock" (ibid.).

For we have learned elsewhere:

After the disappearance of the ark there was a foundation stone in its place.

Why was it so called?

R. Jose son of R. Halafta said:

It was because from it the foundation of the world was constructed.

Hence it is written,

"Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined forth (Tehillim 50:2).


This section opens by discussing God’s presence in the two Temples. It is not clear what the midrash means in saying that the in the first Temple, God lay down there once, and in the second Temple many times (the Soncino translation above has apparently amended this text; I do not know why).


The midrash now seizes upon the image of God dwelling on a rock. To the midrashic imagination, this obviously refers to the even shetiah, the “foundation stone” that stood in the Holy of Holies and upon which the Ark rested. In the second Temple, where there was no Ark, and the Divine presence rested directly on the foundation stone.


According to the midrash, the foundation stone was so called because it was the foundation from which the rest of the world was created. In order to understand the midrash’s proof-text for this point, we must view it in context (Tehillim 50:1-2):


God, the Lord God spoke

And summoned the world from east to west.

From Zion, perfect in beauty,

God appeared.


According to the simple reading of the verse, it is God who appears “from Zion.” However, the midrash reads the phrase “from Zion” as referring back to the previous phrase, as opposed to the following one. In this reading, the translation would be, “…God spoke and summoned the world… from Zion.” In other words, Zion, or, more specifically, the even shetiah, was the starting point of creation, from which the world spread out in all directions.


The midrash now returns to the main topic of the petichta, Aaron and the high priest in general:


What was the form of the High Priest's prayer

on the Day of Atonement when he departed from the Sanctuary?

He would say:

"May it be your will that the coming year shall be

supplied with rain,

then parched [if too much falls],

and blessed with dew;

a year of favor,

a year of blessing,

a year of cheapness,

a year of plenty,

a year of trade,

wherein your people Israel shall not be dependent on one another,

nor shall Israel lord it over one another,

neither turn Your back to the prayer of wayfarers." 

Our Rabbis of Caesarea said:

It was concerning our brethren in Caesarea [that the High Priest prayed]

that they might not assume too much authority.

Our Rabbis of the South said:

Concerning our brethren who are in the Sharon [the High Priest prayed]

that their houses might not become their tombs.


This same prayers appears, with some differences, in both Talmuds and in the Machzor for Yom Kippur. But what is it doing here in our petichta? This prayer is yet another example of the high priest’s greatness. After emerging from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the high priest was particularly close to God and thus in a position to offer efficacious prayer for the entire nation.


The Midrash now returns to explicating the petichta verses:


"From there he spies out his food" (Iyov 39:29):

From there he would receive

[the promise of] food for all the days of the year.

"From afar his eyes see it" (ibid.):

At the beginning of the year

he knew what would happen at the end of it.

How was that possible?

When he watched and noticed the smoke of the altar pile rise towards the south,

he knew that the south would have plenty.

If it rose towards the west, he knew that the west would have plenty.

If it rose towards the east, he knew that the east would enjoy plenty,

And so with all the others.

If it rose towards the middle of the sky

he knew that the whole world would enjoy plenty.


Here, the eagle represents the high priest. The eagle’s keen vision is taken as a metaphor for prophetic prognostication. The high priest does not merely pray for the sustenance of the people at the High Holy days; he actually foresees how the year will turn out economically for the entire world.


The midrash thus concludes its description of the high priest and his many gifts. Now, the midrash finally comes to its point, the death of Nadav and Avihu:


"His young gulp blood

Where the slain are, there he is" (ibid.)

He saw his young wallowing on the ground and kept silent.


Despite all of the glory that he had achieved, Aaron faced the ultimate tragedy, the loss of two of his sons. This picks up on the theme of the suffering of the righteous in this world that was treated in the previous petichta. This time, the midrash takes the matter one step further and suggests the appropriate response to such tragedies: Aaron was silent. He did not complain or question God’s justice. This is stark contrast to Iyov, who argued and complained to God about his suffering.


Having taken one theological turn, the midrash takes another, this time focusing on God’s own response to the deaths:


Nay more,

And where the slain are (ibid. 30),

namely, Nadav and Avihu,

There he is (ibid.),

namely, the Shekhina.

R. Judan in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi,

and R. Berekiah in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba, expounded:

"Draw near, carry your brethren from the presence of the holy one" (Vayikra 10:4).

It does not say, "From the presence of the ark,"

but, "From the presence of the holy one,"

much as a man might say to his fellow:

"Remove that dead body from the presence of this mourner!"

How long shall the mourner grieve?

Hence it is written,


"After the death of the two sons of Aaron."


Throughout this parasha thus far, God’s motives for killing Nadav and Avihu, and causing the righteous to suffer in general, remain a cipher. This passage goes no further in revealing God’s motivations, but rather adopts a different strategy. It directs our focus away from God’s role as the cause of the suffering and draws our attention to God’s response to the suffering. Whatever God’s role in causing the tragedy, God is also a victim of it. He comes to the site of the death to grieve, just like Aaron, Elisheva and the other members of the family.


This is an important approach to suffering in Jewish thought that is often associated with the phrase "imo anochi be-tzarah" - “I am with him in (his) suffering.” This approach encourages us to think of God not primarily as the First Cause or the Director of History (although not denying these attributes, God forbid) but rather as One whose being is inexorably tied up with His creations, and especially with His people. God functions not so much to save us from our sufferings, but to accompany us, to suffer along with us, giving us a chance to experience the eternal even in the course of our most mundane and at times terrible experiences. In the modern condition, I think this notion is best summed up by a story that I once heard about the Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor Leib Rochman. When asked, “Where was God in Auschwitz?” He responded, “He was with us.”


[*] This refers to a town in northern Israel, not the city in central Asia.